In the rear view mirror, all I could see behind us was a 6-ton elephant in musth moving quickly towards the research vehicle that housed myself and my male Kenyan companions. In the background I could hear their panicked pleas to move and to do it quickly. But I was tuned into the elephant and his behavior, and my training and intuition were motivating my next decisions. The bull we affectionately called “Uhuru” (Freedom, in Swahili) moved quickly towards us and then continued on his path as I maneuvered out of harm’s way with a cackle of delight and my heart racing. I did not find the same joy and excitement in the expressions of my companions. Their panic was subsiding but what was almost more memorable than our close encounter was the displays of utter shock on their faces at how I had handled the situation.
So how does one middle-aged woman find herself in the Africa bush dodging elephants and living with lions in her “backyard”? I am a conservation biologist studying elephant behavior and movements, human elephant coexistence, and stakeholder engagement in the Kasigau Wildlife Corridor of Kenya. I am also a non-traditional, first generation PhD student, determined to fulfill her career aspirations even though it’s 20 years later than most. I want to share with you why I think it’s never too late for women to keep surprising people.
I am part of a new generation of women who are undertaking remote field work to advance our scientific knowledge and aspiring to show that bad-assery isn’t just for men (See some women who inspire me at: https://fellowsblog.ted.com/meet-12-badass-scientists-who-also-happen-to-be-women-ace8d797bcad). There is a long list of pioneers that came before me such as Jane Goodall, who showed that our sex doesn’t limit our ability to learn and thrive in challenging conditions. Traditionally, these roles were held by men, and as times change and more women are represented in STEM, inevitably I still find those surprised at my career choices.
When in non-academic settings, if I told people that I was going into the field for several months, the unwavering reaction from most was “well what about your husband?” or “oh, are you going on mission work?” Throw in the fact that I am pursuing a degree at “such an age” and that I’ve spent up to 8 months alone in the remote bush, and I can start to see their brains melt a bit.
I used to become defensive at people’s surprise, and think “it is because I’m a woman.” But then I began to realize it wasn’t because they (well, most) think women are not capable, it is because it’s just not what they are used to seeing. Those surprised looks that I (and I bet most of you) get are usually pleasantly shocked reactions. I knew I needed to shift how I reacted to people’s assumptions to create a situation for an opportunity for growth. But while the conversation on female equality and empowerment has definitely taken a positive turn, the expectations for STEM practitioners is still male-dominated. The struggles of women, minorities, and the LGBTQI+ community in STEM are inextricably linked in their fight to be viewed as equals.
I was terrified as I returned to academics. Like many others, I constantly suffered from imposter syndrome, and my insecurities ran rampant. I was wondering if I was in over my head trying to undertake calculus and analytical geometry after a 20 year math gap, and I questioned whether I would fit in with undergraduate students half my age. However, I was delighted to find female (and male) mentors that pointed me in the right direction, and I was encouraged by the students who dared to use the word “inspiring” and my name in the same sentence. As my friends and family rallied around me and pushed for me to keep going for my MSc and PhD, I remember clearly telling my husband how unexpected it was for me to find that other people weren’t surprised at the fact that somehow my dreams were coming to fruition. He stated very simply that these people were not surprised because they had always believed in me. . . .and maybe I had finally started to believe too. Another of the great powers of surprises is the ones we find hiding within ourselves.
All of the revelations throughout my experiences have left me wondering so many things. How many generations of women have been lost to the STEM fields because of their insecurities or acceptance of what society expected? How many of those underrepresented in STEM did not fulfill their ambitions because they thought those were jobs that they could not get? How many people were sidetracked from their original career choices by life’s many surprises: a sick parent, an abusive partner, a lack of mentorship, economic constraints? How do we find those lost souls like me, and make them realize it’s never too late to return to their original, yet sidetracked plans?
So, for every underrepresented group in STEM, I encourage you stay tenacious. I think we should embrace every surprised expression, and nurture those reactions so people realize that things are changing. We should keep surprising people until what used to be the norm simply isn’t anymore. We burn the idea of the STEM patriarchal model to the proverbial ground by finding young (and older) women to mentor in STEM fields. Until people can look at a group of others, learn one of them is an doctor, and not be surprised that it is the woman, then the work is not done. We have generations of societal norms to overcome, and generations that still have time to make their impact. As women, we have to keep pulling new surprises out of our metaphorical bags of tricks (even though we shouldn’t have to). Shameless self-promotion is acceptable and encouraged, as the more visible women in STEM are, the more the norm shifts.
I am a woman. I am a scientist. I am #NonTradInStem and I will always be full of surprises.
Connect with Lynn Von Hagen, AAS, BSc, MSc
Presidential Research Fellow,
Field Team Co-Leader,
Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in Kenya,
Earthwatch Institute Project